150 Years After the Gettysburg Address, Is Government by the People in Trouble?Roundup: Historians' Take
tags: Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address
Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard University, is a historian and author of This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the Civil War is that it was fought at all. Even when sectional discord culminated in Southern secession in the winter of 1860-61, many Americans remained confident that military conflict could be avoided. Sen. James Chesnut of South Carolina dismissed talk of war by pledging to drink whatever blood might be shed. And in his March 1861 inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln insisted that “there needs to be no bloodshed or violence; and there shall be none, unless it be forced upon the national authority.”
Even those who did expect armed conflict thought hostilities would be brief and losses minor. At the war’s outset, it seemed almost unimaginable that the North would be willing to fight so long and hard to keep the Southern states in the Union. Confederate military strategy in fact came to rest on an assumption that the North would not sustain its commitment to war in the face of escalating sacrifice. Gen. Robert E. Lee’s search for the decisive battle, his invasions of the North, the Confederacy’s eager anticipation of Lincoln’s electoral defeat in 1864 — all represented a costly and fatal underestimation of the commitment of some 2.2 million Northern soldiers, overwhelmingly volunteers, to the preservation of the Union.
With the inevitability of hindsight, with the nation preserved and projected toward the global leadership we have come to take for granted, we rarely consider that the North might in the mid-19th century have made a different decision, might have let the South secede or perhaps have negotiated a peace in the face of Confederate military successes during the war’s early years. And those millions of Yankee soldiers might have proved unwilling to fight....